Published 12:00 am Wednesday, November 20, 2013

It’s six weeks before Goodman Gym at Catawba will be filled with fans from throughout Rowan county for the Sam Moir Christmas Classic. The prep basketball season is unofficially starting here and the primary artifacts aren’t a ball and a hoop but a camera and a subject. Six lucky prep basketball players are on Sam Moir Court wondering just what they’ve gotten themselves into.
It’s around lunchtime and these kids are the ones that’ll grace the cover of the preseason basketball preview edition, which at the time is two weeks away. The subjects waltz down the three-point line that served as their runway with Post photographer Jon Lakey capturing their grace. The boys in the their road uniforms and the girls are in home colors as was preferred. Carson’s Tre Williams was in his home uni, but if that was the worst thing that happened, it was no big deal.
This would be the first-ever two-location photo shoot for a Salisbury Post sports special section. After having their pictures done at Catawba, they’d come to the Post for more pictures and a surprise. They’d play NBA 2K14, the video game that the cover of this section is based on. The players are excited. Coaches are lukewarm, although it’s a chance to convene with other coaches in the county.
“How long is this gonna take,” quips the always-quotable Mike Gurley after rolling his eyes so hard they almost fell out of socket.
“Just wait, you’ll appreciate it,” I say.

The virtual world and the real world are almost indistinguishable in this age of cell phones, Youtube and twitter. At the Post, we’re all about embracing the digital world. Our tweets are just as important as our stories. As of this writing, Mike London has over 2,000 twitter followers, incredible considering the guy didn’t own a cell phone two years ago. I’m at a measly 483.
Although the medium of video games may not resonate with the average Salisbury Post reader, the high schoolers that make up the student sections and walk the halls along our prep heroes love this stuff. Michael Bowman is quick to give Celexus Long a high-five after a nice play. Williams is puzzled after not getting that foul call. Karleigh Wike and Brielle Blaire try to figure out the controller together. Avery Locklear laughs at the silliness of it all. County rivalries are pushed aside for a few minutes at least. They don’t know it, but pictures of themselves will be plastered on the wall behind them, including a family portrait-style gathering, to make it appear if they’re kin to each other.
In a way, they are.

When Michael Bowman says “when I play I’ll beat teams by 30,” he’s referring to the video game which the cover is based on. But as anyone who watched North Rowan’s boys play last year, he could be talking about some of the lopsided scores the Cavaliers won by in the Yadkin Valley Conference, which was overmatched by North on many a night. This year the Cavaliers are upping the difficulty level to 2A and the Central Carolina Conference. They’ve dominated the 1A level for the past four seasons. Oshon West, T.J. Bates and Malik Ford are gone but the Cavs should be fine under seniors Michael Bowman and Michael Connor.
The players on the cover, Locklear, Long, Blaire, Williams, Wike and Bowman went inside a faux-living room setup in the Post’s photo studio. Crafted by Post photographer Jon Lakey and I, there’s a makeshift couch, desk and a handed-down coffee table that supports a 40-inch TV. After checking with every red box location in town, I had to opt for buying NBA2K14 from Wal-Mart.
Williams and Long discuss their battles on the virtual hardwood on the elevator ride up. Williams, who prefers to play with the Clippers, says he and Long play during AAU Tournaments on the road. Williams tells the scene of his domination.
“I killed you all the time,” Williams says at Long with a laugh.
“You only beat me like twice,” Long responds.
It takes me back to the days in my bedroom playing NBA Live 95 on Super Nintendo. It wasn’t uncommon to score 45 points a game with the Hornets’ Dell Curry. That was a world where you could take over with the likes of Detlef Schrempf and Rex Chapman. That stupid game was probably responsible for introducing new swear words in my vocabulary and a couple of broken controllers along the way. NBA Jam was an arcade hit with the lines to play stretching 10 deep in the 90s as well. Now, kids take real-life graphics and simulations of the new generation platforms for granted but it was still just as awesome on the 32-bit pixilated displays of 18 years ago.
Wike and Blaire may not have time for that stuff as they were busy impressing college teams over the summer. Blaire made two new commitments, one to North Rowan and another to Virginia Tech. Wike will join the team at Richmond next year. Locklear is no doubt entertaining the thought of playing in college as she enters her junior year. In last year’s opener against Northwest Cabarrus, Locklear scored a school-record 43 points to show that her freshman year wasn’t a fluke. Locklear, Blaire and Wike are on the cover for the second-straight season.
It’s a well-documented theory that the player on the cover of the game is the guy you want to play with. Of the six on the cover, two have committed to play in college and the other four have set examples on the court and in the classroom. Being on the cover may or may not give them stellar seasons this year, but its fun for them to think it will.

Fans enter the season with questions. Can North Rowan’s boys continue their run as the premier team in the county now at the 2A level? Are the North Rowan girls too good to be true with a roster bubbling with talent? What will the skilled backcourt of South Rowan’s boys be like? Can West’s Long pick up where he left off last year? Is Mike Gurley just as enthusiastic as he was in years past?
The fans that packed Goodman to capacity last year were every bit as evident in the atmosphere. You were on the edge of your seat when Shay Steele hit a layup in the final seconds for West to win its first Moir since 1996. You sat wide-eyed as Davie’s Cody and Caleb Martin dunked a talented North team away in the boys final and you very well may do the same thing when the Martins play at N.C. State in the coming years.

If you look in the background of the picture of the players on the couch, you’ll see a family portrait of them all. There’s someone missing from that.
Even if you’re not a player, coach, manager, scorekeeper, waterboy or even lowly sportswriter, you’re a part of Rowan County sports, basketball included. You’re what keeps the sports scene in this area unique and thriving. The cultural relevance of prep sports, not just hoops, won’t change despite the rapid acceleration of the world around us.
Pick up a controller and get settled. Welcome to Rowan2K14.